Monday, June 25, 2012

Thoughts on characters as people

The following quote was posted on a local film networking site recently that had me thinking:
‎"Characters in scripts are people...not artifacts to be shuffled and manipulated like cards in a magic trick, to suit the contrivances of plot. I think that if filmmakers could approach characters more as if they were people, we'd have much better movies." 
~ Judith Weston, The Film Director's Intuition

It is a timely reminder as the discussion continues to rage over character motivation and actions in Prometheus. Yet there is an aspect that troubles me a little.

Simply this, characters aren’t people. I know this as a screenwriter because of this one essential truth – I DO manipulate them from above, God-like in what is known as the holy grail of screenwriting – STRUCTURE.

The moment you use words like “inciting incident”, “turning point”, “midpoint”, “reversal”, any screenwriting term, you are imposing your will on a character. Whether you use the three act structure, the Hero’s Journey, or any other structural template. Characters obey the rules of good storytelling craft; people do not.

That’s even before we discuss the requirements and expectations of genre and yes, the needs of the plot.

I’ve heard writers talk about characters not knowing that they’re in a movie or television show, not knowing that there is an audience. Then in the next breath tell me that a character has to do something interesting right before the first ad break so that the audience stays tuned in… huh? And my personal favourite – the script “that writes itself” where the writer supposedly lets the characters do as they will.

Well, firstly, scripts don’t write themselves, especially not feature screenplays. They are agonisingly hard to get right at the best of times and require more than their fair share of blood, sweat, tears, prescription medication, therapy, a healthy bar tab, an unhealthy level of bloody-mindedness and a singular focus on the task at hand.

Secondly, I simply don’t believe the mantra “I let the characters do what they want” – that leads to a three hour masterpiece (probably in French with subtitles) about a teenager deciding whether to get out of bed or not. People can be irrational, inconsistent, lazy, passive, unmotivated, goalless and maddeningly stupid. Characters can be all those things until they are propelled on a journey of some description with clear goals and stakes and forces of antagonism. That journey invariably has a shape and the characters an arc where they grow and learn some essential truth about themselves. Some people never learn (yes, you know exactly the sort of person I mean).

Sure, I absolutely agree that characters should act consistently based on the strengths, weakness, flaws, wants, needs and goals established within the context of the situation the writer puts them in. But if a character is left to his/her own devices I fear there would be a lot of “refusals of the call” because it’s rare that people are truly heroic. And isn’t that why we go to the movies? To see characters larger than ourselves do “heroic deeds” (however defined) that we can only dream of?

Aaron Sorkin was asked in an excellent article published in “On Writing” (February 2003, Volume #18) if one of his characters in The West Wing would “…react to a situation differently than [President] Bartlet?” This is his answer which I find most instructive: 

Possibly. But only when I want her to. When it suits my purposes. If I want to tell a story about a woman reacting to the severe oppression of women in a certain Middle Eastern dictatorship, then I’m purposefully having C.J. react differently than Bartlet would. But if I wasn’t interested in telling that story and I was interested in telling a different story about women in the Middle East, I would have no problem having C.J. and Bartlet react the exact same way. In other words, I don’t sit there and think, oh shit, C.J. wouldn’t do this. C.J. would do whatever I make C.J. do. Don Scardino directed A Few Good Men on Broadway, and there was this moment during rehearsal one time when an actor came up to him and said, “I don’t think my character would do this.” And he just said, “I think you’re playing the wrong character.” Of course he would do it—it’s right there in the script.

So what do you think? Character above all else and treated as people or a happy balance between character and structure? Thoughts? Rebuttals? Would love to hear people’s opinions…


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Ah, I was about to reply. It was a good comment too :-)